Dr. Joseph Axelrod likes adventure. But the 63-year-old dentist, who has cycled through southern France, traveled to Africa and likes to scuba dive, had never tried heli-skiing.
An avid downhill skier for more than 30 years, Axelrod had dreamed of having a helicopter fly him to a remote mountaintop to ski on untraversed powder. But the Pikesville resident couldn't talk any of his friends into going along.
"All of my skiing life I've wanted to go heli-skiing," he says. "But it was costly; there was always an excuse. But I decided one day I would do it -- before I couldn't do it."
That day came last February, when Axelrod was traveling with his friend Jeff Slutkin and Slutkin's sons Todd and Andrew at Banff in Alberta, Canada. The resort where they were staying advertised a heli-skiing trip in British Columbia, about two hours away. When Axelrod couldn't persuade Jeff to go, he worked on Todd and Andrew, and they agreed.
After a bus ride to the Purcell mountain range in British Columbia and a hearty breakfast, Axelrod attended an information session about the helicopter, "which is enough in and of itself to make you say, 'OK, I want to go home now.' " Then came pages of warnings, waivers and disclaimers to sign.
"There are fatalities, avalanches, helicopters going down," he remembers the information stating.
Wearing a tracking device in case he was buried by an avalanche, and wearing skis called "fat boys" that kept him on top of the deep, powdery snow, Axelrod boarded the helicopter.
"They're taking us to the most back, back country you've ever seen," he says. "There's nothing. There are no roads, no skiers. It's just the wilderness." The ski guides, he says, were "like Green Berets."
The helicopter landed (one misconception about heli-skiing is that you have to jump out of the helicopter) and deposited the skiers about 12,000 feet above sea level.
"The worst thing is not the fear of falling into a tree well, where you could fall 30 feet down," says Axelrod. "The worst is when you fall down, the snow is like wet cement. You can't get up by yourself. The trick is not to be last, so that there's someone behind you to help you up."
But the snow -- in some places hip-deep -- was everything he had imagined.
"It's an adventurous thing," he says. "Remember as a kid when you wanted to walk in the fresh snow? Well, it's the same feeling, only you're gliding. When you're on skis and you're gliding through it, it's wonderful."
Each run took about 20 minutes, and then the helicopter ferried them back up the mountain, searching for a fresh spot. In one case, the helicopter flew to the end of a mountain. "It was literally a knife-edged ridge," Axelrod recalls.
The helicopter landed on the ridge, "and 50 feet in either direction and we were off the mountain," he says. "That was a thrilling and scary time."
He ended up doing eight or nine runs, and the experience was "probably one of the high points in my life," Axelrod says. "It made me ride above myself and my fear."
That's saying something for a man who learned to ski near the German-Austrian border when he was stationed there in the Army.
To keep fit for skiing and scuba diving, Axelrod works with his personal trainer, Nancy Ash, who happens to be his significant other.
Axelrod, 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, used to run, but gave it up because of injuries. He switched to biking, which he does five times a week, including hour-plus rides on the weekend at his favorite spot, the Northern Central Railroad Trail.
Two or three times a week he works out with weights, and he walks daily on a treadmill.
His son, Erik, and daughter, Jill, are grown, which leaves Axelrod with more time for exercise. But he appears to have passed on an adventure gene: Both children scuba dive, Erik ran a marathon and Axelrod was somewhat dismayed to learn that his daughter went bungee jumping while on vacation.
This winter, Axelrod, a member of the Baltimore Ski Club, plans to stick to area slopes -- and chair lifts.